A novel means to develop strain-specific DNA probes for detecting bacteria in the environment.
A simple means to develop strain-specific DNA probes for use in monitoring the movement and survival of bacteria in natural and laboratory ecosystems was developed. The method employed amplification of genomic DNA via repetitive sequence-based PCR (rep-PCR) using primers specific for repetitive extragenic palindromic (REP) elements, followed by cloning of the amplified fragments. The cloned fragments were screened to identify those which were strain specific, and these were used as probes for total genomic DNA isolated from microbial communities and subjected to rep-PCR. To evaluate the utility of the approach, we developed probes specific for Burkholderia cepacia G4 and used them to determine the persistence of the strain in aquifer sediment microcosms following bioaugmentation. Two of four probes tested were found to specifically hybridize to DNA fragments of the expected sizes in the rep-PCR fingerprint of B. cepacia G4 but not to 64 genetically distinct bacteria previously isolated from the aquifer. One of these probes, a 650-bp fragment, produced a hybridization signal when as few as 10 CFU of B. cepacia G4 were present in a mixture with 10(6) CFU nontarget strains, indicating that the sensitivity of these probes was comparable to those of other PCR-based detection methods. The probes were used to discriminate groundwater and microcosm samples that contained B. cepacia G4 from those which did not. False-positive results were obtained with a few samples, but these were readily identified by using hybridization to the second probe as a confirmation step. The general applicability of the method was demonstrated by constructing probes specific to three other environmental isolates.